Everything to do with my first six months as commander of Special Forces Team A-424, situated on the Cambodian Border in the district of An Phu had been an unconventional experience. When I accepted the Top Secret mission that would allow me and my men to take the war into sovereign Cambodian territory for the first time in that war, I naively thought all the others would follow as we proved successful. LTC William Tuttle, the commander of all Special Forces units in the IV Tactical Corps, looked me in the eye and told me that we would be “on our own” no matter what we faced once inside Cambodia. There would be no support from our higher headquarters.
“Not even medical evacuation?” I asked.
Almost nose to nose with me, he answered, “If you accept, you are on your own. Once you walk out that door, it will be as if we never met. Understand?”
I would learn that Major Phoi Van Le, whom Colonel Tuttle described as being “tougher than nails,” would be my counterpart in An Phu as commander of the five CIDG companies and the LLDB team. He was also the military advisor to the Hoa Hao central council and it was Le, I was told by Tuttle, that met with General Quang Van Dang (IV Tactical Zone CG) and somehow used the reputation of the Hoa Haos as fierce and courageous fighters to convince General Dang that he should meet with Premier Ky’s Minister of Defense and obtain approval for the defenders of An Phu to take the war into what had been sanctuaries provided the enemy by our White House. This was in December 1965, some seven months after we had broken diplomatic relations with Prince Sihanouk. I was to learn that President Johnson, against the desires of Premier Ky, had approved the enemy’s use of Cambodian Territory for safe havens. Insane? Yes, and stupid too. It was aiding and abetting the enemy to permit them safe areas where they could attack our forces from at will with no fear of our following in hot pursuit once they got back across the border into Cambodia.
We were on a different plane at An Phu. With our limited resources of men and weapons we nonetheless took the war to Cambodia but were hamstrung to a certain extent due to a total void of back-up support. We could only logically push the enemy back across the border inside Cambodia to a point where they would find themselves out of our mortar range.
In June 1966, the CIA dispatched one of their agents to my camp to ask if I would accept a mission to assassinate Cambodian Crown Prince Norodom Sihanouk. It seems An Phu was the closest camp to that area of Cambodia where the crown prince reigned and our Hoa Hao irregular fighters had a reputation for getting the job done. Knowing he was no friend of ours and that he had allowed his territory to be used by our enemy, I had no qualms about accepting the mission, but with a quid-pro-quo. Though we began immediately to develop an ambush force of volunteers, gather the equipment and weapons needed for a “sterile” mission and collaborate on a plan for infiltration, ambush and escape back to camp, I had told the company man we would not step foot inside Cambodia on that mission until President Johnson told the American people that our country had permitted the safe havens and concurrently announced that they were eliminated and all of the allied forces were given the green light to pursue the enemy anywhere he fled.
When we were within days of sending our volunteers into Cambodia to kill the prince I learned that there would be no White House move to deny the enemy their safe havens. I immediately cancelled the mission and ordered the agent out of my camp, only to be warned by him. “You can’t fight the system, Captain” he hollered back to me as he was escorted to the waiting chopper, “because you know you can’t win.”
Details of this unusual activity and how we survived the act of retribution concocted by the CIA that would have had me, my men and our Hoa Hao fighters attacked by a 1,000 man ARVN regiment are clearly spelled out in my book Expendable Elite – One Soldier’s Journey into Covert Warfare – to be published by Trine Day Press this coming winter.